Managing agrobiodiversity for sustainable agriculture | PNG National Agricultural Research Institute

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Managing agrobiodiversity for sustainable agriculture

By James Laraki (November 16, 2012)

MANKIND since its very origin has relied upon biodiversity for its food and survival. And today we still continue to rely on it as agrobiodiversity (agriculture related biodiversity) forms the foundation of sustainable agriculture and development; with plant genetic resources (PGR) for food and agriculture providing the biological basis for agricultural production and world food security.

The plant genetic diversity allows crops and varieties to adapt to ever changing conditions and to overcome the constraints caused by pests, diseases and abiotic stresses. However, there is growing concern the genetic diversity is eroding at an alarming rate due to replacement of local varieties with high yielding introduced varieties, and other cumulative effects from invasive alien species, pests, weeds, diseases, land use change and environmental degradation. This poses serious threat as many useful genes may be lost for good; genes that may be required to counter biotic and abiotic stresses, as well as improving quality and nutrition in our diets.

While it is no doubt that green revolution contributed to our present day agriculture, it has on the other hand resulted in simplifying our agriculture system, where the bulk of the global agricultural production is now coming from the cultivation of few species and even from use of limited varieties from less cultivated crop species. One of the major problems associated with green revolution is the narrowing of species diversity in agrobiodiversity.

It is indicated that there are about 400,000 plant species world-wide, out of which 300,000 species have been documented in some form of their existence. And of these about 30,000 species are edible and have the potential to contribute to our food security.

However, from this large number of edible species, only 7,000 species have so far been utilized at varying levels, but there are no statistical records for their cultivation. Statistical records for cultivation are only available for about 200 edible species of which only 30 species feed the majority of the world population. But it is also noted that almost 60% of the global food production comes from only three crops; rice, wheat and maize.

To address these challenges, efforts are required to capture the full range of traits contained in the diversity of species and varieties; so that the information can be used by breeders, researchers and other players to enhance the quantity and quality of agricultural products.

It is now increasingly accepted that sustainable management, conservation, and use of agrobiodiversity is central to any initiative for sustainable food production. The future of sustainable agriculture production can only be possible through enhanced use of PGR.

It is therefore necessary that the existing diversity be made available in the form required by users. To achieve this, a clear strategy and commitment is needed, which is presently lacking at all levels. Efforts are required to look at possible ways that can promote or enhance the use of genetic resources to address the various challenges for food security.

There are concerns that efforts on conservation, on-farm management, crop improvement and seed systems are insufficiently integrated to adequately address present and future challenges, particularly food security, sustainable development and climate change.

The Asian Pacific region (including PNG) is the center of diversity of many important species of crops and livestock and we have an important role to play on this front. Our effort towards collecting, characterization and evaluation, conserving and using of PGR has been insufficient, attempts have been to some extent uncoordinated and ineffective.

Priority in terms of research and development, and allocation of necessary resources has been lacking. Lack of national policy on plant genetic resources and biosafety, lack of skilled personnel, non-existence of in-country network to name a few is some factors that continue to hinder our progress.

NARI has started well since 1998 when it took over the agricultural research functions from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL). The institute has appointed a very senior national scientist to coordinate PGR work. It also continues to take charge of the field germplasm collections of major staple crops such as sweet potato, taro, banana, yams and aibika, initiated by DAL in the 80s. The Institute’s recent effort towards biotechnology and capacity development in crop improvement is a step in the right direction.

However, it is also noted that one organization cannot achieve this alone; it requires the collective efforts of all players. We need to do what is necessary and move on with it. This need to be considered seriously, as diversity of agrobiodiversity is directly responsible for the livelihoods of the majority of our people. 

There is a need to make awareness to policy makers and civil society to understand and appreciate the useful benefits that our traditional food crops can offer to the national, regional as well as global food and nutrition security. We will only appreciate their potential if we can collect, conserve and utilize them to diversify our agriculture system. 

NARI is already part of regional efforts towards this, and is implementing a number of projects. All concerned need to come together to support these initiatives to collectively contribute to regional and global efforts.

In light of climate change, increasing world population, rising food prices and other issues confronting us, the world cannot be fed with only 30 plant species or rely on 3 crops to produce 60% global food. We need to explore the potentials in our PGR towards achieving sustainable agriculture and global food and nutrition security.

Photo: A farmer and his daughter with their harvested African yam at Nasuabum village along highlands highway, Morobe province.  

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